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Ken Welch claims most City Council endorsements in St. Petersburg mayor’s race

Four current and former colleagues of council member Darden Rice have endorsed Welch over her in the mayor’s race.
Darden Rice (left) and Ken Welch are candidates in St. Petersburg's mayoral race.
Darden Rice (left) and Ken Welch are candidates in St. Petersburg's mayoral race. [ Darden Rice; Pinellas County ]
Published Jul. 3

It’s common for elected legislators to back their colleagues in political races — county commissioners, Congress members and others tend to endorse their seatmates, unless there are partisan differences.

That’s why Ken Welch says it’s significant that four people who have shared the City Council dais with council member Darden Rice have endorsed him over her in the mayor’s race.

One of Rice’s City Council colleagues, Gina Driscoll, has endorsed Rice.

“Those who know the leading candidates for mayor best overwhelmingly support Ken Welch,” said an April news release from Welch’s campaign.

Those endorsing Welch are council members Lisa Wheeler-Bowman, Deborah Figgs-Sanders and Amy Foster, and former council member Charlie Gerdes, who sat on the council with Rice for several years until 2019.

Rice had no comment on the situation.

Is there a reason her colleagues are supporting her opponent?

In interviews, Gerdes said his endorsement of Welch was only because of Welch’s experience and qualifications, not because of any dissatisfaction with Rice.

Former St. Petersburg City Council member Charlie Gerdes
Former St. Petersburg City Council member Charlie Gerdes

Wheeler-Bowman and Figgs-Sanders didn’t respond to repeated phone messages for comment.

Both could have particular reasons for backing Welch — they’re the only two Black council members, and Welch would be the city’s first Black mayor.

City Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders
City Council member Deborah Figgs-Sanders [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]

In addition, Rice sided against Wheeler-Bowman last year in an election for council chairman, backing sitting Chairman Ed Montanari for another term, even though it’s traditional for the chairman to change every year.

After two tie votes, the issue was decided on a coin toss, won by Montanari.

Gerdes said his endorsement “is based upon my conclusion that Ken is the right person to lead St. Petersburg to its best destiny,” said Gerdes. “In no way is it a rejection of Darden Rice’s service or policies.”

Foster said she backs Welch for his “leadership style, relationships, and ability to build consensus and collaborate.”

Emily’s List backs Rice

Emily’s List, a powerful national political advocacy group that backs pro-choice women candidates for office, has endorsed Rice in the mayor’s race.

The endorsement could add to Rice’s substantial fundraising lead in the race. Emily’s List advertises endorsements to members nationwide — it claims 3 million — and urges them to donate.

The organization said Rice “has advocated for increased access to affordable healthcare, defended the freedom to vote, and strengthened environmental protections.”

Rice would be the city’s second female mayor, and the first under its strong-mayor form of government.

Charter advocate challenges Perez

As the Hillsborough County School Board deals with fallout from a decision denying contracts to four charter schools, a pro-charter and anti-mask mandate candidate is challenging first-term, countywide school board member Karen Perez.

Hillsborough County School Board member Karen Perez
Hillsborough County School Board member Karen Perez [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times staff ]

The challenger, Alysha Marie Legge, says she filed to run against Perez in April partially in protest over a mask-wearing mandate imposed in the school district, but that the board’s decision on charters is a strong motivation for her campaign.

Legge, 34, of Riverview, calls herself “a stay-at-home mom” who spends a lot of time doing research on the best educational options for her children, one of whom is a 7-year-old with special needs, and believes in “parental rights” and freedom on education and personal health decisions, including mask-wearing and vaccinations.

Alysha Marie Legge of Riverview has filed to run against first-term, countywide school board member Karen Perez.
Alysha Marie Legge of Riverview has filed to run against first-term, countywide school board member Karen Perez. [ Alysha Marie Legge ]

She wouldn’t say what her own personal choices have been on Covid vaccinations — “It’s personal choice. I’ll make that decision when I feel like it’s time.”

A first-time candidate, Legge said she hasn’t been directly involved in politics but has been “an activist” on the issues she believes in, cultivating relationships with elected officials.

Her campaign Facebook page shows links to conservative Republicans, backers of Donald Trump and “patriot” groups.

Legge, daughter of a military family who has lived here about five years, served a year in the Army and was honorably discharged, she said, after “God had other plans for me.”

Perez, among the board members who cast votes against the charter schools, expressed surprise during the meeting that a charter school can open in a suburban community already served by high-performing schools.

“I have approved charter schools in the past, but when they bring a contract to the board that is lacking, it’s incumbent on me to vote as I did,” she said.

Bilirakis, Castor take on body-snatchers, crash-test dummies

Responding to an investigative news story about “body brokers” who buy and sometimes abuse deceased human bodies, Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, has introduced legislation to regulate the industry.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis
U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis

The legislation would affect donation of bodies for research or experimentation, an area regulated by few state laws and no federal law, Bilirakis said in a new release. Donation of organs or tissue for transplants is heavily regulated, he said.

Brokers make money by providing donated bodies and dissected parts to research organizations, but sometimes engage in “grisly abuses,” he said, citing a Reuters investigation.

It found such incidents as bodies being used in Army blast experiments, despite donor wishes to the contrary, and decomposing remains handled inappropriately in storage facilities and washed into gutters as waste.

Low-income people are affected because some companies promise free cremation for a donated body, eliminating funeral costs, Reuters reported.

The legislation would require body brokers to register with the government, maintain records for each donation and return unused remains to a donor’s family.

Bilirakis and Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, have also filed legislation to require that the crash-test dummies used in federal automotive safety testing more accurately represent female physiology.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The two Congress members said in a news release that current tests don’t use female-oriented crash test dummies even though research suggests that women have a higher likelihood of being killed or significantly injured in a car crash.